I haven’t shared much here about how the very real possibility of an early death really makes me feel. It may seem that I’m holding back my true self, and you would be right, in this writing I have, so here’s a little bit more info about how I feel about all this.
I went a long time fearing death. You can read all about my fears in thousands of other people’s writings. I don’t have to spin it my own way. I’ve even lost a little sleep about it too. Not much, but some.
As I got older I gradually accepted it though, and the idea of ceasing to exist became less scary. Not that I had anything to replace the comforts that religious people say they get with their beliefs, but instead it was just an acceptance that I could very well just … turn off. The big thing that helped me with this atheistic way of looking at death was the inescapable fact that if we really do just turn off, then we won’t know about it. I can accept that. So what about if there really is some kind of afterlife? Again, I get no comfort from conventional religious believes except perhaps the Buddhist concepts of returning to the big whole.
But looking at the nation-wide, multi-year mortality rates of pancreatic cancer patients I have shitty odds. I take some comfort in knowing that I’ve done pretty much much all I can to improve on them by optimizing my decisions, resources, and situations; like I’m here at Virginia Mason, under the care of the best doctors, with the best multi-disciplinary team, I’m participating in a chemo trial that has demonstrably better potential results than current practice, I am in good physical condition, I have a wonderful life partner helping me through this, a supportive and loving family, I stay actively engaged in life, and I have a wonderful set of friends at all intimacy and trust levels who I can count on for help.
Nevertheless, I always carry this knowledge that with pancreatic cancer I have no idea how all these advantages will affect my long term odds. Nevertheless I carry myself a and direct my thoughts to being positive, enabled, and engaged. I know some folks may challenge my optimism and may imply that I’m ignoring reality, but my answer to them is this really stark, really emphatic phrase, what other choice do I have?
Our existence is still rife with amazing capabilities. I know for a fact and have personally experienced the phenomenon where a patient’s outlook radically and positively affects their recovery & healing. My personal experience includes a recovery from some nasty surgery that was months ahead of what my doctor had expected, all because I was head over heels into a brand new romantic relationship, juicy with what my dear poly friends call “new relationship energy”.
So even though I know I can’t be certain; even though I know that this cancer is one of the worst; even though I anticipate a lot of discomfort with the chemo, and the pain and time in a frigging hospital bed being fed intravenously after my Whipple procedure; even though there’s the grim fact that if I’m lucky after the surgery, I’ll face at least another couple of rounds of chemo and maybe even radiation therapy, I choose to be positive.
In my mind this route brings me the least amount of emotional pain, and not just for me but for everyone I care for and who cares for me. For us all, I have no choice but to drive into this thing like any other difficult, complicated project I’ve ever faced. In my experience the only way to do these things is to be positive and humorous; focus on the blessings and shoot down every negative thing that happens, fast and hard.
So I have my times of fear, or regret, loss, and sadness, but I let it run through me and I get on with life. I posted this in an online discussion recently: Maybe it’s just that at some point in our lives death is in our faces so much that it becomes stupid to try and bar the door to it. Instead we just have to let it run through, invite it to visit and remind us, and then go away for a while longer. If we bar the door it just keeps banging at it, more and more intensely until it breaks the door down, and with the door it also breaks us, and takes the rest of our defenses and renders our coping mechanisms ineffective. By integrating this dark, dark certainty into our daily thinking, we remove death’s teeth, we take some kind of control over the inevitable slide, turn the slide into a dance instead. [a quote by me from one of my FaceBook posts]